About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lessons learned from New Communication Technologies in Organziational Life

Last fall, I was asked to teach a special topics course for Communication Majors. I would develop a course on a topic that I had some knowledge of. As I had been doing a lot of research on social networking, the department head and myself came up with a course named New Communication Technologies in Organizational Life. Needless to say, I didn't know as much as I thought I did as I began to create the course. However, I was able to aggregate many of the pieces I had coming into the course as my students worked on the class project: an online conference on nanotechnology. I learned a lot through my student reflections on the assigned readings, my own class preparation, and the use of technology within the classroom (observing how my students used new communication technologies and the problems they had applying it to a work context).

I don't know why I did not think of it before, however, Michele Martin suggested that I blog about it. So taking the notes from my final powerpoint for the course, here goes!

Four Types of New Interactive Technologies

I began the course design by breaking up New Interactive Technologies (New Communication Technologies for this course) into four categories dependent upon the intended use: communication (mobile communication technologies such as cell phones, pda's, video conferencing), information sharing (pod and vodcasting, visual information software, blogs, pageflakes), collaboration (wikis, groupware), and networking (facebook, LinkedIn, Ning).

Each of these categories were broken up into units that included related readings and activities that used each of the technologies listed above. At the end of each unit, the class would discuss the impact that these technologies had on accomplishing their tasks and best practices for the use of these technologies to accomplish work tasks.

In each of the units, there were some commonalities: a different way to access to information and share information, new organization, different means of communication and (with that) new communication skills, and a greater level of work and personal life intersection.

Work/Personal Life Intersection While these new technologies allow people more flexibility to pursue activities outside of work, it also is a double edged sword as the line between work and personal life is blurred. The result is less formal communication (i.e. e-mails, im, even written documentation such as blogs and discussion forums). Also there is more mobility between school, the workplace, and the community (or communities). However, there is also more access by the organizations to areas that are non-workplace related.

The anytime/anyplace access that these technologies allow means that workers become more aware of their behavior outside of work (or aware that what they do outside of work may be used to evaluate their job performance), yet more informal within work. Many of my students (as backed up by research) were uncomfortable with the idea that management could access what they considered "private" space (Facebook, myspace) thus impacting their career.

The one aspect that these new technologies might have on the organization is to change the "water-cooler" effect. This is the idea that in the past, people would socialize in the workplace, exchanging war stories, etc...The format for this for the younger generation are blogs and social networking sites. However, this takes the small talk out of the organization and into a written record. Some of the spontaneity and "crazy idea" generation may be lost, along with a deeper level of relationship building due to reduced "face time". On the other hand, workers can connect to those that they feel they have more in common with throughout the organization. In addition, there is a written record of thoughts and ideas which they can access later.

Communication Consideration: When choosing a new technology, there are a number of factors to consider. First, the mode of communication and the way in which messages are crafted (rhetoric) need to be analyzed. By mode of communication, I mean written vs. visual vs. oral, one-way vs. two way communication, one-on-one vs. one to group, group to group, or group to one. Depending on the situation, context, and purpose of the communication, the appropriate technology should be chosen depending on the message and access by both the senders and receivers (initiators and audience).

The audience will have a huge impact on the choice of technology and how it is used. Language, tone, and register may be distorted or lost depending on the affordances of the technology. For example, IM and texting requires short sentences and abbreviated speech in order for there to be timely feedback between the writer and reader. On the other hand, blogs often include links which require a more formal and planned writing process.

Finally, who controls, monitors, and supports the technologies will influence the choice of technology. IM is much more difficult to control ( in terms of information flow and when it is used, not to mention possible viruses). Wikis, on the other hand have controls built into them that allow for different levels of contribution.

Access to information and information sharing: Perhaps the greatest impact on the organization that these new interactive technologies have has to do with the new forms of information and new ways to share information.

Information can now be presented in multiple formats to fit different user needs. This includes creating visual representations, networking and connection information so it no longer has to be presented linearly, and allowing greater access and control over who and when information can be accessed. The result is that information becomes much more situated and user driven.

The impact, however, means that there needs to be more decisions on the management's side as to who will have access to the information and how workers will be trained to use the information. Take, for example, the old multi page books of data reports on personnel, sales, or accounts receivable/payable reports. These used to be limited to the managers for access. An employee would need to go to the manager to get these records (especially if there were privacy issues as with the personnel issues). Now, employees can put in specific search functions, find the information they need and have access to the information as long as they have clearance. This requires that employees understand how to find the information, use the information, and the impact in case the information is leaked or accessed by those without clearance. In addition, the information can be linked to other departments which means that changes in one part of the organization will result in impacting the other part of the organization. As a result, workers need to have an understanding of how the information is linked and their role in the organization.

My students found this to be especially important as they worked on their project. As each group worked on their piece, they soon discovered that assumptions they made about the other groups were not necessarily true. They needed a common platform from which to work (which we did by diagramming the work processes as a class as a whole). This face to face coordination seemed as important to them as the access (anytime anyplace) to the information online. They concluded that training, coordination, and planning the use of the technologies were vital to its effective use.

New Organization: Finally, it is important to understand the impact that these new technologies will have on the organization. In fact, the impact may be so powerful, that many organizations may opt not to incorporate these technologies into their organization. Depending on the type of organization, the resulting flat communication structure may not fit their organizational structure and mandate. We identified three different types of organizational structures that might need different levels of control due to the nature of their industry and product. The first is one that needs to be very structured with strong controls from the top down. These would include industries such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, defense contractors, and banks. Most of these industries are highly regulated and lack of control could have negative consequences on security and the public good. The second would be those that are able to allow some freedom for decision making at the local levels or line workers, with a preference for strong central strategic plans. Large multinational corporations tend to fit this group as local input is important, as is coordination of resources. Finally, most small or medium sized organizations, especially in the services industry, allow for more individual control. However, with this greater level of control comes higher expectations for worker knowledge and understanding of where they are in the organization.

As a result, these new technologies must be integrated into the system. To do so, workers needs to:

  1. be part of groups with strong group leadership skills
  2. understand and recognize key communication nodes within the organizations, including within and between departments
  3. Coordinate between groups
  4. Train using new technologies and new uses of older technologies
  5. Be part of the development process of which technologies will be used and how; understand the bundling of technologies, identifying which combination of technologies will be most useful for each situation
  6. Develop new processes the new technologies allow for and/or require
New Communication Skills

We identified the following communication skills that workers will need to use these new technologies:

  • Information filtering when reading and writing
  • Ability to speak using "lag" time (turn taking)
  • Ability to network
  • Technology skills such as typing, IM language, and social networking
  • Initiate, motive, lead communication interactions
  • Group work skills
  • Identifying key works or tags
  • Able to analyze trends
  • Ability to learn new technologies as they evolve
  • Ability to change register and communication dependent upon the situation and technology


Michele said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this up and share it, Virginia--I've just posted about it on Work Literacy so that people can check it out. Good stuff to keep conversations moving along!

joanvinallcox said...

What a wonderful course! It should be part of all business programs, in fact it should be universal (IMHO). It is sensible, current, and pedagogically strong. Wow!

V Yonkers said...

Thanks Joan. Not only that, but I had to find new ways to teach this with limited access to technology. Because it was late in the semester when the course was added, I almost did not even have internet access, much less a lab.

As a result, many times students were given a task at the beginning of class, sent out to work on it, then came back and discussed problems, challenges, and accomplishments. Many times, I did not even have access to sites because of the blocks on the classroom internet (this happened with the pageflakes software).